Few figures in history have had as powerful an impact on American masculinity as the cowboy. For over a century, the cowboy has — for better or for worse — been a standard of rugged individualism and stoic bravery for the American male. While the mythologization of the American cowboy began all the way back in the 1880s with dime novels and Wild West shows, it wasn’t until the advent of twentieth century cinema that the cowboy cemented his place as an icon of manliness.
The Western has been a popular genre of cinema since the very beginning of film, and successive generations of filmmakers have used the “Wild West” as a backdrop on which to explore the social issues of their respective eras. Many of the early silent films at the beginning of the 20th century were Westerns, the most famous being 1903’s During the 1920s, the Western film genre produced some of Hollywood’s first megastars such as Tom Mix and William S. Hart. These early Westerns were heavy on action, but light on plot. Their primary goal was to simply entertain.
It isn’t until the 1930s that the Western became an avenue for telling stories with searching and hard-hitting messages. Directors and screenwriters used the genre to overtly and symbolically explore the pressing subjects of their day like racism, nationalism, capitalism, family, and honor — issues deeply meshed with manhood. During the Great Depression, for example, when men felt punished by the economy even though they had worked hard and done the right thing, Western plots often revolved around a man who is mistaken for an outlaw and falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit and must find the real criminal and seek justice himself. In the 50s, it was society’s anxiety about conformity that began to be reflected through the prism of the Old West. Instead of taking on bad guys with a posse, the protagonists in these mid-century Westerns (Shane and High Noon being the best examples) were loners who were compelled by their own values to fight against wrong while those around them cowered in fear like sheep. The tenor of Westerns changed once again during the cultural, social, and political upheaval of the 1960s. Like many films during that time, the antihero now took center-stage, and the heroes in these films were typically outlaws who were fighting against a corrupt system of justice and inequality (see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). During the 70s and 80s, the classic Western went into hibernation. It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that the genre returned to prominence in film and TV. Reflecting the post-modern era in which they were made, these more recent Westerns are much more morally ambiguous (Unforgiven) or satirical and/or comedic (City Slickers) than their earlier counterparts.
Because the Western has played such a huge role in the shaping of American masculinity (not to mention simply being enjoyable entertainment), I thought it only proper to highlight some of the best from the genre. Below you’ll find my picks. I tried to get a good mixture from different time periods. It goes without saying that John Wayne makes an appearance in several of these films. Enjoy.
High Noon is film about being torn between duty and love and standing up for what you believe in, even when everyone else abandons you. Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a town marshal from New Mexico, who settles down with his pacifist Quaker wife (played by Grace Kelly, one of your grandpa’s babes). Kane’s plans to retire to a peaceful life are interrupted after he gets word that a former gunslinger is coming in on the noon train to settle an old score with him. His wife pleads with him to leave town, but Kane knows he can’t. He has a duty to defend the town and his honor. Will finds himself alone in the battle as everyone in town, including his deputy sheriff, have turned away from him. The tension builds, leading up to the final gun battle — the quintessential mano-a-mano showdown that historians say rarely actually happened in the Old West, but has become an indelible part of popular culture.
Best line: “Don’t shove me Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.”
This is the movie that made John Wayne a star and set the standard for all subsequent Westerns (some would say it set the standard for all 20th century cinema). Directed by the legendary John Ford and shot on scene in Monument Park, Stagecoach follows a group of nine strangers as they cross dangerous Apache territory in — you guessed it — a stagecoach. All of the characters have their own personal demons that they’re running from and the journey through the treacherous Apache territory in many ways serves as a symbolic road to redemption for each of them. The acting and screenplay is top notch. Despite being filmed in 1939, the movie is still fresh and engaging. 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